Thursday, January 1, 2009

What Were Their Names? Woody Guthrie's "The Sinking Of The Reuben James"

We all know the basic story behind "The Sinking of the Reuben James" because we all know the song - brave American sailors on North Atlantic patrol, the U-Boat attack, the few survivors, Woody Guthrie, the "Wildwood Flower" tune, the song.

But there's more - much more.

To start, Reuben James himself was apparently one hellaciously forceful figure - a boatswain's mate who distinguished himself in the very early USN in the two wars against the Barbary or Tripoli pirates (1803 and 1815) and in the War of 1812, serving in all three under Lieut., Capt., then Commodore Stephen Decatur. In the first pirate war, James was one of four sailors whom Decatur took under cover of darkness to burn a captured American warship in Tripoli harbor, an exploit praised as the most daring in naval warfare at the time by no less than Britain's legendary Admiral Lord Nelson. James also is credited with saving Decatur's life on at least two occasions, the first in the Battle of Tripoli when despite bleeding from wounds in both hands he threw his body over Decatur's prostrate form and took a scimitar slash for him - then got up and killed the assailant and went on fighting. He served more than thirty years in the USN, retiring in 1836 at 57 due to ill health from his many combat wounds.

I'd say that this was a sailor worthy of the three ships named in his honor, the first of which, DD-245, commissioned in 1919, is the subject of our song.

But as I noted in my WV (weekend videos) on "Remember The Alamo," we tend to remember the myths more than the often-ambiguous underlying realities of history. Such is the case with the USS Reuben James. The actual events of late October 30th and early October 31st 1941 are surrounded in a haze of mystery and likely lost forever beneath the murky North Atlantic waters.

The destroyer was on convoy patrol escorting cargo ships to the UK, part of FDR's Lend-Lease program - regarded by many experts in international law today as an act of war, making the Reuben James a fair target for the German navy. As a sub-hunting destroyer, the James tracked the approach of a U-Boat "wolfpack" and steamed in its direction. What is not clear to this day is a)whether or not the ship that Reuben James was immediately protecting actually was carrying war materiel (as the Germans alleged, the Allies denied, and today seems likely but not certainly established); b) whether the U-552 under Capt Erich Topp (who died at 91 on Dec. 26th just three years ago!) was actively engaging the Reuben James or was firing at the presumed ammunition ship and hit RJ incidentally; and c) whether the rapid sinking and high loss of life aboard the destroyer was caused by the torpedo hitting the forward magazine, or whether the impact explosion set off the destroyer's depth charges stored right below the main deck.

I have never been completely satisfied as to why this did not lead to an immediate declaration of war against Germany - it is, after all, exactly what the Japanese did at Pearl six weeks later. I'm guessing - and check out the article at the end of our first video - that the FDR people realized that they were on shaky legal ground to begin with in using the US military to aid and abet an active combatant nation in war time.

In any event, it was a major national shock at the time, and oddly little remembered outside of the song today. Woody Guthrie, like his fellow Almanac Singers (including Pete Seeger and Bess Lomax, daughter of folklorist John A. and who would go on to co-write "MTA"), switched from opposing US intervention in WWII to favoring it after Hitler betrayed his pact with Stalin and attacked Russia in late summer of '41. Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine with close friend and folk legend-to-be Cisco Houston, shipping together on a number of transports (two of which were torpedoed and sunk, Cisco later remarking that when the ship "didn't sink too fast" he'd get out his guitar and sing the RJ song with Woody and the crew waiting for the lifeboats to deploy).

Woody originally intended to mention each of the 86 sailors who died on the Reuben James by name - one of his early drafts included this:

There's Harold Hammer Beasley, a first rate man at sea
From Hinton, West Virginia, he had his first degree.
There's Jim Franklin Benson, a good machinist's mate
Come up from North Carolina, to sail the Reuben James.

Dennis Howard Daniel, Glen Jones and Howard Vore
Hartwell Byrd and Raymond Cook, Ed Musselwhite and more
Remember Leonard Keever, Gene Evans and Donald Kapp
Who gave their all to fight about this famous fighting ship.

The other Almanacs (John Birchler identifies Pete Seeger) told Woody that no one would ever sing a song so long, so Guthrie cut it to four verses, adding the chorus "What were their names?" at the suggestion of Almanac Millard Lampell to keep the focus on the sailors themselves and not the incident only. The original last verse, a war-time rallying cry, went:

Now tonight there are lights in our country so bright
In the farms and in the cities they're telling of the fight.
And now our mighty battleships will steam the bounding main
And remember the name of that good Reuben James.

The last verse we know was added after the war with Woody's blessing by Weaver Fred Hellerman (who wanted the song to be timeless rather than specific to one war), and that group has a fine and dramatic performance of the song on one of the Carnegie Hall concert albums.

Most of us and much of the folk world only learned of this marvelous song, though, in the Kingston Trio's 1961 Close Up album - this is I think the definitive version of the song. This fine video includes the names of all of the dead from the Reuben James -

What an extraordinary performance! Perhaps in the shadow and under the influence of Goin' Places and their treatment of Guthrie's "This Land" - the Trio manages to be powerful at a very moderate pace, unlike the breakneck speed at which some other groups sang both songs. This would include the selfsame NBJ trio in the mid and late 60s concerts at which I saw them, and here in the 1981 reunion (which truncates a verse, dammit!):

And Trio fans have to be delighted that our current Trio of George, Bill, and Rick have chosen to include this KT classic in their performing repertoire. It seems to me that they split the difference between the two NBJ videos in terms of pace while retaining the power of the original, and George dramatically re-imagines the banjo part:

Only one other major folk group that I know of after The Weavers and the KT made a serious and original attempt at interpreting this song, and that was the Chad Mitchell Trio three years after the KT on the wonderful CMT album Reflecting. Paul Prestopino and Jacob Ander provide ample support for this fine but different version of the song, a bit more like the Weavers:

Banjo maestro and folk traditionalist Billy Faier critiqued the Kingston Trio version of the song as "all climax and no dynamics"; while I clearly disagree - well, the CMT were probably the best of the 60s folk acts at modulating the vocal dynamics in their songs, and their RJ is a great example of that.

3/27/10 - The Weavers And Woody

LordFearsarge has kindly uploaded the Weavers' version from their Carnegie Hall concert album. Aside from its drama and musical excellence, this version is significant because it is the template from which the KT and CMT drew their adaptations, and because the lead singer is the aforementioned Fred Hellerman, author of the last verse:

And since the original publication of this post, Tasedlak has posted Woody himself performing his composition from the series now known as the "Asch recordings" executed by Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records:

A fine memorial and a wonderful song. The KT IMHO never sounded better.


1) More Videos

First, a million thanks to Xroader/Bloodliner/FC Camper/Swede-living-in-Mallorca Bo Wennstam for taking and posting the video of the GBR trio doing the song last August - I ran out of space for acknowledgments on the first post.

Now, in addition to the video available of Woody Guthrie doing the song himself, there are two versions on YouTube that resemble WG's. First - Aussie Raymond Crooke, living in Hong Kong and a member of the HK Folklore Society, poster of hundreds of folk videos to YouTube, comes closest to Woody's version on guitar and vocals - this video has an extraordinary 42,000 views:

My occasional YT correspondent Alonso Garbanzo performs the song as Guthrie would have - if Woody had been able to sing and play better than he did.

Two years after this article was published, SuperZilla12 posted pop-country star Johnny Horton's version, which was a minor hit on the country charts. Horton sings Guthrie's original lyric in full:

2) Photos

The USS Reuben James


The Actual Sinking


Editorial Cartoon About The Incident


Today's USN Frigate Reuben James


Reuben James Himself Saving Stephen Decatur (Contemporary Illustration)


3) A Final Comment

From the notes by "," the poster on YT who uploaded the RJ video with the KT and all the names:

This version is by the Kingston Trio. Some folk music fans do not like the Kingston Trio, quite possibly simply a backlash against the massive popularity they enjoyed in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. I'm no expert on folk and no purist--all I know is that they sing great together and that there is a lot of power in those guitars and vocals--"Reuben James" sounds great.

I threw this one together myself. The song famously asks, "What were their names?" I've answered that question.

Amen to that. Happy New Year!


Addendum - January 2014

A few months ago, The Almanac Singers' rendition of "Reuben James" was uploaded to YouTube. This is the first recorded version of the song. Pete Seeger sings lead.


TDIGUY said...


As the owner of, I am certainly interested in this song and your wonderful post. I would like to post this page as is on my site, if that is OK with you. I would surely include a link to your site and include your name as author, but I want to take it because it will disappear some day. Maybe 5 years, maybe 10 years, but some day this page will no longer be available, and I don't want to lose the nice work you did.

If you say no I will respect your wishes, but I like it A LOT and will be sad to lose it.

Jim Clark

Jim Moran said...

Hi Jim!

First, thanks for your kind appreciation of my piece here - I have a little clean-up to do, like getting Topp's first name right and clarifying the point about the ship that RJ was protecting and the fact the Woody and Cisco were in the Merchant Marine and not the Navy.(which I knew but forgot!)

I'm responding to you here because there's no email link, but I'll also get over to, which I've surfed through a couple of times already and really love - great job on a really under-appreciated force in the folk movement, the best singer of them all by far, a fine guitarist, and a performer of impeccable taste.

OF course I'd be delighted to have you do anything you like with this post - feel free.

It may ultimately disappear I suppose - but if you look at this blog overall (Comparative Video 101) - you'll see that the reason for its existence is because all of these posts started on a really nice Kingston Trio message board that does NOT archive its posts - in response to the popularity of some of the early pieces (especially on Shenandoah and Greenback Dollar) I decided to "archive" them myself on this blog.

I was born in 1950, and my love of the KT took me directly to Tommy Makem, the Weavers, and Cisco Houston - whose records I bought after hearing him do "Railroad Bill" and "The Cat Came Back" from Newport 1961 on Vanguard's compilation.

There is one interesting KT connection especially with Cisco - their decision to include "Badman Ballad" (which they called "Badman's Blunder") on their 1960 "String Along" album - when they were at their unprecedented peak of popularity, with four albums in the top ten at the same time, the first NINE albums going gold - resulted in part from Cisco's illness. I had this first hand from Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio, who died Oct.1 and whom I got to spend time with over the last six years. Cisco and Lee Hays shared copyright for the song, and since Trio albums were selling around half a million units per album - the royalties to songwriters were really substantial. Reynolds told me that (as I had heard) they intended on including "Badman" on a later album (they did three or four per year!) but rushed it onto "String Along" so that the royalties would help Houston with his costly medical expenses.

In any event - I'd be delighted to make any contributions to you Cisco page - and I really look forward to your development of it.

Best to you -

Jim Moran

Chris Albertson said...

Thank you for your page on the sinking of the Reuben James. Beyond liking Guthrie's song, I can personally relate to the incident, for I was there, a 10-year old boy huddled in a lifeboat on the deck of an Icelandic freighter, the SS Godafoss. I was not close enough to see the actual sinking, but I saw and heard the impact. If you go to my blog ( and search on Reuben James, you can read what I wrote about it a couple of years ago..

lizbelden said...

Thank you for posting this. It has a personal connection to me, as James Mead Belden II was my uncle. My brother is James Mead III. My Dad told my Mom on their first date that when they had a son, they'd name him after his brother. My Mom thought he was nuts-it WAS only their first date-but after WWII they did marry, and my brother Jim was born a year and a half later.

Hayford Peirce said...

The K-Trio version of this song is great, no doubt of that at all, better than that of any other group. But my all-time favorite song in the entire folk/country/urban folk canon, to which I've been listening for 55 years now, is Cisco Houston singing the Reuben James. Not only is his voice and pacing unmatched by anyone (any group) else dealing with this song, he ALSO sings BOTH final verses! Take THAT, K-Trio!

Jim Moran said...

Thanks Hayford et al. I agree about Cisco's version, and if you check out the first comment -Jim Clark was mind enough to re-post the whole article to his fabulous CH site.